Thursday, March 29, 2018

Memories of being alarmed

“The alarm in the morning? Well, I have an old tape of Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a perfectly transcendent version in Shubert’s seventh symphony. And I’ve rigged it up so that at exactly 7:30 every morning it falls from the ceiling onto my face.” ― Stephen Fry

When I was a child, I was rudely awaked every morning by a device that was aptly named an alarm clock, so-called, I suppose, because it was alarming to be awakened by the raucous sound of a clapper feverishly striking two little bells on top of the clock.

By the time I was an adolescent and unable to go for more than a few minutes at a time without listening to what I, but not my parents, called music, I had a clock radio, which could be set to turn itself off after a given number of minutes at bedtime and then turn back on at a specified time in the morning. The clock radio made it possible to go to sleep listening to music and to wake up listening to music. For those who needed to be alarmed, an obnoxious buzzer could be set to go off a few minutes after the music began to play, just in case the music was insufficiently jarring to bring sleep to an end. For those who were prone to fall back to sleep after the alarm went off, there was a feature called a snooze alarm, which sounded at intervals until the alarm was deactivated. When I was living with my parents and had a bedroom to myself, I relied on my clock radio to help me achieve the transitions between wakefulness and sleep. When I went to college and had to be considerate of roommates, I tried without much success to learn to go to sleep and wake up without external aids; I slept through many morning classes. (Much later, I atoned for that sin by teaching early morning classes that many of my students slept through.)

In early adulthood I completely outgrew my need for alarm clocks, having replaced them with babies who woke up crying just before the sun came up. From that point in my life onwards, I have nearly always awakened at just about the time the sun comes up and have had to set an alarm only on days when circumstances called for getting an early start. As a result of having a fairly reliable internal clock, my relationship with external wake-up mechanisms has deteriorated somewhat. While that is generally true, there have been a few memorable devices along the way that have yanked me out of slumber when the need arose.

When I was living in Japan in the late 1970s I was introduced to a number of electronic gadgets that did not become commonplace in North America until several years later. One of them was a slab of plastic small enough to fit into a shirt pocket that kept track of time and had an alarm that emitted high-pitched beeping noises. When I returned to North America, I bought one for my father, who loved new gadgetry. For a few years he enjoyed being on the cutting edge of chronometric technology, but it was not long before small battery-powered clocks and timers were available everywhere at much lower prices than the cost of a round-trip ticket to Japan.

A few years before I retired from teaching, I was with a student and had occasion to look at my wristwatch to see what the date was; even though wristwatches that showed the date had been around for decades, I still marveled at the clever convenience of a machine that could indicate both time of day and calendrical date. My student, seeing me glance at my timepiece and datepiece, remarked that people of his generation would never settle for a device that did only one thing. I asked him what he consulted when he wanted to know the time, and he pulled out a cellphone—not even a smartphone, but a flip phone of the sort that hardly anyone but old fogeys like me still carry. He demonstrated that his cellphone told the time and date, could be used to make telephone calls, had a calculator and several kinds of timer and alarm clock and a digital agenda book and a few simple games. He then pointed out, unkindly I thought, that his multifunction device cost less than half what my cumbersome two-function wristwatch cost. I realized then and there that I had outlived my usefulness.

Even though I still have a cellphone that is more simple and minimalistic than the mobile telephones that people were carrying ten or fifteen years ago (which, incidentally, I use mostly as a clock, since I hate both making and receiving telephone calls and am much too old to learn how to send or receive SMS), I do now have a multifunction device that fits on my wrist. It serves as a pedometer, heart-rate monitor, clock, calendar and stopwatch. It calculates an estimate of how many kilocalories of energy my body has consumed. If I wear it to bed, it logs an estimate of how many hours of deep sleep I have had, and if I set the alarm, it gently and noiselessly vibrates on my wrist to wake me up (although in performing the task of waking me up, it usually loses a race with my bladder). While I confess to finding it a bit silly to have a device that monitors my life as thoroughly as that wristband, I do find it an improvement on the clanging of the windup alarm clocks that woke me up as a child.